Friday, November 24, 2017

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill: Friends (book)

Deanne Stillman (; Xochitl, Pat Macpherson (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly

Reading Deanne Stillman’s recently published book Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill stirs a dispiriting sense of reverse déjà vu.

Celebrity worship, inequality, homelessness, governmental disregard for wildlife, and treaties with Native American tribes -- they all figure in a complex narrative winding from America’s 19th-century Western frontier up through 2016’s dramatic protests at Standing Rock Indian Reservation and the Trump administration’s recent moves to [destroy] wilderness areas [by exploiting them through business ventures of] mining and drilling.
Trump’s war on the wilderness didn’t start with Trump. It’s a last attempt to completely take over the land, take whatever’s there,” Stillman says.

“The tribes have been removed and sent to reservations, and now the move to eradicate wild horses, and undo all these wilderness protections. I believe this is the endgame in a war against Native Americans.… This is just a continuation of the dark part of the American story.”

Blood Brothers covers earlier pages in that tale. Revolving around two historical icons whose names still signify a kind of outlaw independence, it expands on themes in the author’s previous books: 2001’s Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murders, Marines, and the Mojave, 2008’s bestselling Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, and 2012’s award-winning Desert Reckoning. All deal with what Stillman calls “the promise and failure of the American dream.”

William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and “Sitting Bull” the Hunkpapa Lakota Medicine Man were two of the most famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) celebrities of post-Civil War America, and their rarified positions seeded their unlikely bond.

Buffalo Bill was a charismatic, velvet jacket-wearing “ladies’ man,” who worked as a Pony Express rider, railroad buffalo killer, and US Army scout, then performed in and eventually produced “equestrian extravaganzas” that re-enacted Cowboy-and-Indian battles and other sensational events.

Former scouts, cowboys, Indians, and sharpshooter Annie Oakley (whom Sitting Bull regarded as a daughter) all performed in Cody’s immensely popular show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.

It was a huge “get” to book Sitting Bull, who had defiantly led his people to Canada for four years before starvation forced them to surrender their ponies, guns, and freedom to US Army demands and reservation rule. Brisk ticket sales measured the public’s fascination with the warrior once cursed as Public Enemy No. 1.

The book alludes to male bonding over ritual and bloodshed in hunting and soldiering. But after the Army’s vicious campaign to eradicate Plains tribes so white farmers could settle native lands, how was working together possible for onetime enemies shoved aside by America’s rapid industrialization -- namely Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill, and his cast?

According to Stillman, traveling shows like “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” offered the only way off the reservation: “They got to hit the road and be free again, within a limited frame of reference.… Cody was spinning out this American scripture and permitting cowboys and Indians to live inside this world that was being obliterated on the outside.”
By the time Sitting Bull signed on with Buffalo Bill, after ventures with other shows that did not treat him well, he was fascinated by American technology and wanted his children to “flourish in the world that had overtaken [and destroyed] them.”
But he could not understand how a culture whose weapons had defeated his people could not take care of its own; according to Stillman, he would “sometimes give away his salary” to orphans he encountered on the street.
Sitting Bull emerges as a compassionate leader of integrity with a wily business sense; the highest-paid member of Buffalo Bill’s show, he asked for a signing bonus and insisted on ownership rights to photographs of him so he could raise money for his family.
Were he alive today he’d likely exhibit a rock star’s branding savvy. Buffalo Bill paid high tribute when he told a Minnesota reporter that “no white man could convince his people to follow him as they starved” as Sitting Bull had done.
Stillman also presents Sitting Bull as a very intuitive “spiritual force to contend with,” recounting his lifelong affinity for wild creatures, especially wolves and birds... More

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